Sunday, February 20, 2005

Kiss of the elephant

The last 9 days I have had a visitor. A woman I care very much for has been here to teach organisational communication, living in the house, the guest room serving its purpose. Esther Ewing of the Change Alliance has had the first year information students firmly in hand, talking about assumptions, personality, communication and organisations, teaching them the noble art of naming elephants.

I have enjoyed the visit very much, although I do wish Esther would have let me have more personal time with my kitchen. I respect and appreciate a guest's need to help out, but I also enjoy finding my kitchen implements where I normally keep them.

And I have enjoyed watching my own stubbornness. Esther has been teaching the students to examine their own communication pattern. It's a tough subject and an even harder task, but she's been able to get the students interested and committed to it. I respect and appreciate that. At the same time I was gritting my teeth every time she repeated her main message and all-week litany: "check your assumptions." To a constantly critical academic like me, checking your assumptions is not something something you can learn in a week of listening to a consultant. (Ooohh, the assumptions I am making about consultants vs academics right there! I'll tell you why I suspect the argument holds up though. Transparency is the academic way, after all.)

Checking the assumptions in scholarship and research is the matter of sound methodology, substantial science theory work, and a high level of reflexivity. There are people who spend lifetimes creating systems for checking academic assumptions (Derrida, anybody? Bourdieu? Stein Rokkan? Ivar Åsen?). Paradigms shift when assumptions are checked.

I have been watching her teach this topic, which I assumed has to be complicated, involve years of hard study and rigorous discipline, in a few hours. Oh, I itched to deconstruct her lessons, to show her the cultural differences between the world she works and lives in and the one the students will face - but what would it change? The most valuable lesson may be to see this gap for themselves, checking the assumptions of their lessons. Perhaps I should take a lesson from the way she blithely sat the curriculum aside to focus on only a few aspect of organisational communication. Perhaps I should give myself the American KISS, and organize my lectures accordingly. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

But then again, if the students only get 60% of what I say anyway, I would prefer those 60% to be packed with information and challenging statements. And so, with an inner resigned grin, I see my own stubbornness mentally compose the next lecture. Sorry boys and girls, but once more I will make you suffer and work for your 60% of comprehension.

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